As a historian, I have an allegiance to the past, and to getting the facts right about that past. Because, if you can’t get the facts right, if you can’t do research with rigor and honesty, you can’t call yourself an historian.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that Trump’s version of the Republican Party is anathema to me. The party has no respect for the past. And getting facts right? What does that matter in a time of “alternative facts,” in an administration that lies routinely and about everything?
Trump’s version of the Republican Party is a party of the perpetual now, in which the meaning of “now” is remarkably labile and open to interpretation (and re-interpretation). In a strange way, Trump’s party is the party of post-modernism, where all facts are contingent, where everything is open to being constructed and deconstructed. Truth itself is a social construct in the Trumpian universe, determined by Trump himself and the various ass-kissers he’s assembled around him.
Not only is the Trumpian Party without a meaningful past: it’s also without a mediated future. According to the official platform of the Republican Party adopted last night, the party and its platform is what Trump says it is, world without end, Amen.
Here’s how it was put in a press release:
“RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda” and “The 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.”
The platform is Trump and Trump is the platform. The future is whatever Trump wills it to be, in his usual egotistical and often nonsensical way.
Facts don’t matter. The (true) past doesn’t matter. America as will and idea, as defined by Trump’s mind and driven by Trump’s desires.
As many have said, this isn’t a party, it’s a cult. A cult of unreflective minds, a cult unconcerned with critical thinking about the past, a cult that believes the future is best defined by one man.
One thing is certain: You won’t need any historians in Trump’s world. Just a lot of stenographers and sycophants willing to accept reality as Trump presents it, a perpetual now that’s constantly constructed and deconstructed before your eyes, the only constant being the celebration of Trump.
Remember: you can’t believe your lying eyes, but you can believe in Trump. If that’s not the end of history, I don’t know what is.
When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter. This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda. Become critical thinkers, I told them. And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.
Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today. This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned. In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni. On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation. The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.
A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education. Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!). Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com. I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding. But stupid is as stupid does. (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!” Yes, hmm, yes.)
Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.
Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.
Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)
And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.
Three Myths of Higher Ed
Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.
Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)
And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.
One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).
A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?
Three Realities of Higher Ed
What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.
Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.
Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.
We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.
Donning New Sunglasses
One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.
It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.
To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.
Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.
Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.
Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.
For me, statues and monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?
As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.
If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.
What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.
Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.
If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.
What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.
For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.
If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?
George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom. Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons. You can limit how and what they think. You can, in a major way, control the future. Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.
Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com. They make no apologies and take no prisoners. They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth. The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).
Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House. They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.
The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.
I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.
Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place. Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.
In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):
I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.
One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.
In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.
We’re only sixteen years into the 21st century, but it seems like a “best of times, worst of times” kind of epoch. It’s the best of times for the aristocracy of the rich, and the worst of times for the poor and disadvantaged, especially when they live close to or in war zones.
Perhaps that’s a statement of the obvious, except the gap between the richest and poorest continues to grow. Their worlds, their realities, are so different as to be virtually disconnected. This is a theme of several recent science fiction films, including the “Hunger Games” series (the Capitol versus the Districts) and “Elysium,” in which the privileged rich literally live above the sordid earth with its teeming masses.
Some of the big fears of our present century include the emergence of a “super bug,” a contagion that is highly resistant to traditional drugs. We’ve overused antibiotics and are slowly breeding new strains of bacteria that modern medicine can no longer defeat. Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. still lack health care, or they’re reluctant to use it because it’s too expensive for them. And then there are the workers who lack sick leave. They force themselves to go to work, even when sick, because they need the money. How long before inadequate health care and sick workers facilitate the conditions for the spread of a plague?
And then there’s the contagion of violence and war. America’s wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa are basically open-ended. They are today’s version of the “Hundred Years’ War” between England and France, an on-again, off-again struggle for dominance that sprawled across two centuries. In fact, America’s “war on terror,” with its “surgical strikes” and reliance on technology as a quasi-panacea, seems to be breeding new types of “super-bug” terrorists who are highly resistant to traditional techniques of policing and war.
In this effort, one thing is certain: No U.S. president will be declaring “peace” or even “normal” times for the next decade or two (or three).
Finally, let’s not forget global warming. The Pentagon and the CIA haven’t. Republicans may have their share of climate change deniers, but when it comes to the U.S. national security state, contingency plans are already in place for the disasters awaiting us from global warming. Competition for scarce resources (potable water especially, but food and fuel as well) combined with more intense storms, widespread flooding, and much warmer temperatures, will generate or aggravate wars, famines, and plagues.
In “A Distant Mirror,” the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about the calamitous 14th century of plagues and wars and a mini-ice age in the northern hemisphere. We seem to be facing a calamitous 21st century of plagues and wars and a mini-hothouse age. It’s a grim prospect.
The question is: Can we act collectively to avert or avoid the worst of these calamities? Or are we fated to dance our very own 21st-century danse macabre?
How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe? It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union. Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:
Iraq and Syria don’t exist. Neither does Israel. Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt. Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
Ah, Kurdistan! The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland. Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.” With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria. The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal. A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East. The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance. They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Talk about a fertile crescent! Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia? Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe). Lucky Jordan.
The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.
My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance. We are obviously not seen as impartial. Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.
But we just can’t help ourselves. The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating. We see the globe as ours to spin. Ours to control.
Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power. After all, those British and French mandates are gone. European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench. (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)
I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different? Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation? An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?
History may not repeat itself, but it sure does echo – often loudly. That’s the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s new article, “Tomorrow’s News Today: Writing History Before It Happens.” Tom comes up with nine headlines that we’ve seen before, and that (sadly) we’re likely to see again — and again. Here, shortened, are his nine “future” headlines:
U.S. airstrike obliterates foreign wedding party.
U.S. government surveillance is far more intrusive than previously reported.
Patriotic whistleblower charged with espionage.
Extremist groups exploit unrest caused by U.S. military strikes.
Supposed U.S. ally snubs Presidential summit/meeting.
Young American with Islamic sympathies caught planning terrorism in FBI sting operation.
“Lone Wolf” homegrown terrorist kills innocents; says he was inspired by ISIS.
Toddler kills mother in gun accident.
President says U.S. is both exceptional and indispensable.
You can read all of Tom’s article here. Perhaps the most sobering aspect of his article is how readily predictable (and repetitive) such headlines are. Toddlers shooting parents and siblings? Sadly predictable due to the proliferation of guns and lack of safety measures. Whistleblowers charged with espionage? The next Snowden or Manning should be ready to be so charged, even when (especially when) their motives are focused on informing ordinary Americans of what their government is up to.
Inspired by Tom’s article, I came up with seven grim “future” headlines of my own. I challenge our readers to come up with a few as well. Just add them to the “Comments” section below.
This is not simply a whimsical or cynical exercise: it’s a reminder of how narrow our country’s narrative appears to be, both now and in the immediate future. Details change, a name here, a country there, but the headlines remain the same. We need to act to change these headlines.
My seven “future” headlines
U.S.-trained army [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan] collapses, abandoning heavy weapons and ammo stocks to rebel forces.
Deep-sea oil drilling platform [in Gulf of Mexico, Arctic Circle, insert environmentally sensitive area] malfunctions, triggering major spill and environmental disaster.
U.S. President starts new war without Congressional declaration of war.
After declaring “mission accomplished” [in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, insert almost any Middle Eastern/African Country] and withdrawing U.S. troops, President [Bush, Obama, Bush/Clinton] orders troops to return as war is rekindled.
U.S. loses huge weapons cache [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan]; sends more weapons as replacements.
Lawbreaking major bank/corporation “too big to jail”; pays fine and admits no wrongdoing.
Pentagon weapon system, 10 years behind schedule and $100 billion over budget, fully funded by Congress.
Always in motion the future, as Yoda said. Let’s hope that a change for the better is not something that’s limited to “Star Wars” movies.
Mark Danner has a probing article at TomDispatch.com on the career arc of Dick Cheney, the self-selected Vice President under George W. Bush. Cheney’s approach to history, an attitude he shared with Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld, was the idea he could make his own reality, independent of history. Previous precedents on waterboarding as torture? They don’t matter. The predictable civil war that resulted from our invasion of Iraq? Doesn’t matter. History is made by the big swinging dicks, no regrets, no apologies.
Even when the insurgency in Iraq was obvious to all, Cheney and Rumsfeld sought to deny that reality. Recall that Cheney said in 2005 that the insurgency was in its last throes even as it was beginning to peak. Recall that Rumsfeld said in July 2003 “I don’t do quagmires” even as he and the U.S. military were sinking into one in post-invasion Iraq.
History teaches humility, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were having none of that. History is a sovereign remedy to hubris, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were all about hubris. Faced with history’s uncertainty, as represented by favorite questions like “Yes, but” and “Are you sure,” Cheney and Rumsfeld hissed like vampires confronting garlic.
The end of history — in the sense of ignoring its lessons — came with Cheney and Rumsfeld.
And like Danner says in his article, we’re left today with the bloody mess these dicks created.
As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history. Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.
We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses? Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment? Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?
In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history. They think the lessons don’t apply to them. They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses. They figure they are in complete control. Hubris, in other words.
Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé. Why? Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality. And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments. In Rove’s words:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris. For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason. History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.
In Joaquin’s words:
“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine. To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no? … To hell with history. If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”
As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God. A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history. Our history. Because it teaches us what we’re capable of. We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another. We grow bored, so we kill. In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do. We killed because we could. That was the reason.”
The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God. It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities. The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception. Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.
The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so. If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.
Frederic Remington understood the color of night, and he also understood something of the uniqueness of the Native Americans he painted. This lesson was brought home to me by David Heidler, a good friend and a leading historian of American history. Visiting an exhibition of Remington’s nocturnes, Heidler had this to say about how these paintings moved him:
[Remington’s works] reminded [me] of something easily forgotten by the sanitized depictions of Indians inflicted on our own times. Remington was able to portray them as obviously aboriginal while preserving their stoicism and majesty. Hollywood Indians, whether in Kevin Costner’s wolf-waltzing epic or the Mohican picture featuring the terminally taciturn Daniel Day Lewis as foil for the grumpily taciturn Russell Means, are simply European ethnics festooned in feathers and possessed of nifty woodcraft.
Remington’s Indians, though, are people so alien that one instantly recognizes them as part of another world uneasily coming to terms with an encroaching one. His “Apache Scouts, Listening” perfectly captures the odd division between the near-feral instincts of the scouts and the tentativeness of their army employers. The several Apaches are in various postures, mainly ones of repose, but their necks are elongated, their broad faces frozen with concentration and all directed just beyond the viewer; the two army officers sit on horses in the background, their hands cupping their ears in an effort to hear that the Apaches obviously can detect with ease. It is night and winter, and a full moon illuminates the scene with jarring clarity, the light ambient from the heavy snow on the ground.
I could still be standing there watching it if allowed to.
Few Hollywood movies that I’ve seen capture the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Native Americans on their terms. Our movies are mitigated (or polluted) by the Western gaze, tending to portray Indians as either “savages” or mystical proto-environmentalists/Zen gurus. We see what we want to see, not what is.
Back in the bad old days of John Wayne westerns, Indians were typically portrayed as savages who deserved to be extirpated or shunted on to reservations where they could be “civilized.” Nowadays, the “magical” Indian is more common, a noble brave and guru to the White man who highlights the White man’s materialism, prejudice, and violence.
Although it’s not a perfect movie (it has its own political agenda), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George captures at least some of the distinctiveness of Indians, at least for me. The decision to allow the Indians to speak fluently in English (when it’s meant to be Cheyenne) helps to bridge the gap of understanding (no Pidgin English as in old westerns, and no distracting subtitles as in the sanctimonious “Dances with Wolves”).
The depiction of Native Americans in LBM is neither universally positive nor negative. The brutality of Indians is shown in the opening scene of carnage in the aftermath of an attack on White settlers. The Cheyenne encampment is described in humorous terms (from my memory): “When first entering an Indian camp, one might be excused from thinking, I’ve seen the dump. Where’s the camp?” It’s an amusing reminder that standards of cleanliness for Plains Indians differed from White town folk. The Cheyenne also eat boiled dog, which the narrator (Hoffman) describes as downright delicate in taste (I doubt that scene would survive Humane Society inspection today).
But for me the most harrowing scene is Chief Dan George’s masterful speech as he holds a scalp. He explains how the Indians (the “human beings”) believe everything is alive but the White man believes everything is dead. It captures the animism of the Indians and their connection to nature while highlighting the instrumentalism and ruthlessness of (some) Whites.
The gulf in understanding between our peoples only exacerbated the wars over turf. And the Indians sensed, as Chief Dan George says in the movie, that they were on the losing side of the demographics (an endless supply of White men, but a limited number of Human Beings, notes Chief Dan George).
But watch “Little Big Man” for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Even better, take a close look at Remington’s nocturnes. Try to place yourself in the paintings as my friend David Heidler so powerfully did. Such a vivid exercise in imaginative exploration — using Remington’s work as a time machine that transports you to a different world among a people who are far more diverse and complicated and alien than Hollywood has ever managed to capture — is both transfixing and transformative. And fun!
Author’s note: I’d like to thank David Heidler for his permission to cite and share his personal (and moving) reaction to Remington.